“Oh my God! What are you doing out here all by yourself?!” the man asked incredulously, resting with his bike on the side of the trail at Soquel Demonstration State Forest.
“Um, riding the same trail you are. What are you doing out here all by yourself?” I retorted. Why was I being questioned by a total stranger again? And not just anyone, but a dude?
“Well, some people don’t know where they’re going, or what they’re getting into out here. Just making sure. Looks like you ride a lot,” he replied, trying to recover.
I continued riding my bike past him, my irritation visible on my face. This wasn’t the first time I’d been questioned by a male rider. He saw that I was a girl, and immediately doubted my riding abilities. What was he doing alone?! Could he not see the hypocrisy? Later on that ride, I zoomed past him as he was taking a break on the side of the trail. It always feels good to speed past someone who doubted you could keep up at all.
All of my life I’ve been called a “tomboy”. I’ve always loved to be outside, doing athletic things, and taking risks. I couldn’t care less how my hair looked, or what clothes I wore. I was pretty much accepted as “one of the boys” with my childhood friends. I continued to have many guy friends that I enjoyed doing sports and other outdoorsy things with as I got older.
But an undertone of doubt developed at some points, whether it was questioning my running speed, my ability to drive in the snow, jumping from a creekside ropeswing into a swimming hole, or snowboarding down a steep run.
When I really got into mountain biking several years ago, I was perplexed by the questions I was getting from total strangers, all of whom were men. In summary, I got a lot of, “Hi; nice to meet you. Now let me question your shit”.
Specifically, these are some of the things I’ve heard from dudes on the trail:
1. “Do you know where you’re going?” looking at me as if I’m lost while I’m taking a rest on the side of the trail.
2. “You know there’s a gnarly section ahead. You got this?” As I fly down it proving him wrong, yet again.
3. “You’re all alone out here?!” Oh my gosh! Call Search and Rescue! It’s a girl by herself!
4. “You look so tiny on that big bike. This is a serious race; you sure you’re ready to race it?”. This came from someone at Northstar during the California Enduro Series. I held my tongue to say, “Good things come in small packages”. I also went on to win first place in my Beginner category that day.
5. “This trail has log drops, you know – not that you do those”. Thanks for the underestimate from someone I barely know, as I proceed to fly down said logs. Ride on, Dog.
There were all these little things adding up. I felt like I was being judged the minute these guys saw my long hair. I’d be resting on the side of the trail, perhaps letting some air out of my tires before a downhill, and be asked if I needed help; if I knew the trail I was on. While it’s nice to be offered a helping hand, the tone was often more quizzical and doubt-filled. “Are you okay?” they’d ask, with a look of concern on their faces. Just because I’m a girl alone in the woods doesn’t mean I need help, thank you very much.
Then, on a mountain biking trip to the Tahoe area, I spent a day checking out Kirkwood’s Mountain Bike Park (which compares none to Northstar’s). I rode up the chairlift with a guy who immediately started questioning me: I was alone on my trip? Planning to ride Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride? And then Downieville? He seemed quite concerned.
“You know, Mr. Toad’s is a gnarly ride. Like, even I walk sections,” he said, with a know-it-all tone. “And then Downieville? That’s even gnarlier. You know what you’re getting into all by yourself? You ride a lot?”
Why did he feel he could question me like this? I wasn’t asking him about his skills. He had no idea what my abilities were, and was just operating off of assumptions that were, in my opinion, quite sexist. I humored him by answering his questions: yes, I ride a lot; yes, I’ve heard the rides are “gnarly”.
When I made it to Downieville, I was told I would be walking many sections of the trail by the guys on the shuttle with me.
“You’ll be able to do about 80% of the trail,” they predicted.
It felt awesome to not walk anything on Mr. Toad’s or Downieville; to not just do it, but ride it with true Flow and Grace. And it felt even better to pass some of those skeptics on the way down. But their doubt still bothered me.
Then there was the day I was on my way to my usual ride (Sweetness and Magic Carpet, Upper UCSC in Santa Cruz) when I saw a friend gearing up by his car to ride.
“Wait for me a sec,” he said. In a few minutes, we were off riding together. When we reached the top of the climb, he turned to me and said,
“I don’t mean to sound condescending, but I’m going to be charging down this trail, going off the jumps and everything. I don’t want you to get hurt. Do you have the skills to make it?”
I took a deep breath. Yet again, here I was being questioned. Seriously?! I have to answer to this? I tried my best to be diplomatic and gracious, but couldn’t hold back my rankled reaction.
“What ‘Magic Carpet’ did you think I was referring to when I said I was going to ride Magic Carpet? This is my regular ride. I do all those jumps too; it’s the same trail you’re doing,” I defended. “Honestly, I think you’re being sexist by asking me that. Assuming that just because I’m a girl I can’t ride the same trail you can? I’m sensitive to that, and that bothers me.”
He immediately justified his questions by saying a friend (male) had gotten hurt following him down the trail once before; that he just wanted to be sure I could do it. I was irritated, though, and considered the fact that I could’ve been ageist and questioned his skills.
My redemption came in flying down the trail as usual. I didn’t need his praise as I cleared all the jumps he had questioned me about. Then, at the very bottom there is a rocky section that dumps you onto Highway 9. It’s very technical, full of rock drops, and many people walk it. I rode it all the way down, and he looked at me with surprise.
“Wow, I don’t see many girls make that section. Impressive.”
“Just doing what I always do,” and off I went, as if I needed the approval.
Recently, my husband Ron and I were boarding The Wall chairlift at Kirkwood. The lift operator turned squarely to me (not Ron), and asked:
“Hi there; this run is for experts only. Have you been down The Wall before?”
“Yes, many times. You going to ask my husband the same question?” I asked him back, skating ahead on my snowboard to board the chair.
“Sorry just checking and doing my job!” he called back, as we boarded the lift.
Another time, it was a rainy day, and I was at the gym doing the elliptical. I was reading People magazine, and drinking a Yerba Matte. There was a man next to me on the treadmill walking. I kept feeling his gaze dart toward me, when after a few minutes, he said:
“I don’t know what’s worse for you. That ‘People’ magazine or that Yerba Matte,” he judged. I couldn’t believe I was being interrupted with such a rebuke from a total stranger.
“Seeing as how I’m a Math and Science Teacher, I like to unwind sometimes with something light. Would you like to see the Geology book I have in my bag over there? I read that, too.”
More notably, there’s all of the messages we see in advertising and media. Whether it’s commercials where a girl needs a website to help her negotiate a good car price, or the roles women play in movies and television of being helpless and dependent, the list goes on. There’s one particular ad that’s common in mountain bike magazines, whose caption reads: “Actually, I can: get up at dawn, fix my own flat, ride that trail…” and the list goes on. The statement, while seemingly based on empowerment on first read, bothered me the more I looked at it. “Actually, I can”? It seems like they’re assuming most women don’t think they can do those things. Thanks for underestimating us, yet again.
It’s not that I think every man (or woman, for that matter) who questions me is malicious and sexist. I also don’t doubt that sexism goes both ways; that men feel sexism, too. And I certainly don’t think every man is sexist. But when enough things happen, it feels like I’m being singled out just for being a girl. That’s what’s frustrating. I don’t need everyone I meet on the trail to assume I’m a pro, as much as I don’t need them to assume I’m a complete newbie. I think the important part is not to assume at all; to not make an “ass” out of “u” and “me”, as the old saying goes. I wish people would remember that when they question someone’s ability to do the same thing they’re doing; that they would have the grace to just do their own thing and not question at all.
Instead of, “Hi, nice to meet you; now let me question your gear”, let’s just start with the “Hi; nice to meet you” part. What works well for one person doesn’t always translate to another anyway. Our genders don’t necessarily mandate the best sporting equipment for us. Different strokes for different folks. I love my 29’er, workout pants, and cotton T’s. I may not ride with a matching kit, but I have fun and enjoy the ride.
And please don’t tell me I should be riding a 650B.
After all, does it really matter what I’m doing? Just do you; I got this.